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A Skill Isn’t "Soft" If You Use It All the Time in a Contact Center

Someone typingI hate the term “soft skills” and want everyone to stop using it. Right now. It’s vague, it’s dismissive, and it pits “soft” skills against “hard” ones when we know customer service professionals need both kinds of skills to do their increasingly complicated jobs well.

If we can stop referring to writing skills with the empty word “soft,” we can recognize how important they are to providing great service. Here’s what’s wrong with the term:

It’s Too Broad a Term

The term “soft skills” is too vague to be any use in screening prospective employees or coaching the ones who are already working in customer service. To prove my point, I present the results of my simple Google search on the skills referred to as soft:

From patience to persuasiveness to public speaking? When a term can be used to mean everything, it ends up meaning nothing.

“Soft Skills” Are Really Essential Skills

The role writing skills play in the operation of today’s omnichannel customer care organization is anything but small. For example, if we list the channels that are referred to as “omnichannel,” most of them are written: chat, email, fax, social media, text, and web/online form. If a frontline customer service agent doesn’t have excellent writing skills firmly in place, they won’t be able to cope with this range of service channels, and their manager won’t be able to freely move agents around when the number of contacts in any one channel spikes.

I propose that we take this too-big bucket o’ skills and create smaller buckets. Instead of referring to them all as soft skills, we’d have communications skills, leadership skills, and collaboration skills, to name a few.

The Necessity of Communication

I’d like to dive a bit deeper into one of those buckets - communication skills - to focus on writing skills, as these are a set of skills that are vital in a contact center. If you can’t communicate in writing, you can’t provide service. Today, if you want to be competent at your job, being able to write clearly is as important as being able search the knowledgebase, using the CRM nimbly, and keeping your product knowledge up to date.

Here are the three writing skills I believe customer service pros must have:

The ability to explain how to complete a task or procedure.

In customer service, we spend a lot of our time helping people understand how to do things, so explaining how to complete a task is an essential writing skill.

For example, a customer service agent who has this writing skill knows that easy-to-read instructions begin each step in the process with a verb. They’ll be writing clearer email replies, easier-to-follow chats, and better knowledge-base content. These clear instructions prevent repeat contacts.

Write at a technical level the customer can understand.

Increasingly, we’re providing customer service in synchronous messaging channels, like text and chat, and that gives us the opportunity to suss out how much technical knowledge a customer might have. Being able to adjust our writing on the fly—so sophisticated and naïve customers alike can understand us—is an essential, and prized, writing skill.

Use a positive, personal tone that shows empathy.

Customer service agents with this writing skill understand that it’s worth their effort to use words to demonstrate they care. They convey a positive, personal tone with phrases like these:

  • Sure, I’d be glad to help.
  • Let me check into that for you. Can you wait just a moment while I review your account setup?

Please let us know right away if you run into this problem again, so we can continue troubleshooting for you.

These writers are also skilled at using words to show empathy. They avoid using a tone that blames the customer or hides behind policy or other restrictions. Instead, they demonstrate they understand the customer’s perspective with phrases like these:

  • I realize it can be complicated to…
  • I can imagine how frustrating that would be.
  • I want to understand what happened as much as you do.

In Conclusion...

Have I convinced you that we should abandon the term “soft skills?” In the past, when we elevated “hard” customer service skills like sales or product knowledge over “soft” communication skills, we perpetuated stereotypes which portrayed those who work in customer service as more eager to make a sale or enforce a policy than to really help a customer. When we stop calling communication skills “soft,” we raise them up and make it clear that our frontline agents must have these skills to succeed.